Judiciary stands firm despite politicians’ machinations | Sunday Observer

Judiciary stands firm despite politicians’ machinations

14 July, 2019

In a week, it will be three months since the Easter Sunday bomb attacks that cost the lives of more than two hundred and fifty people. While the perpetrators of the dastardly act have been identified, the question about who should take the blame remains unanswered and there are frantic attempts to look for a scapegoat.

That is why the context and comments made by Colombo’s Chief Magistrate this week regarding the tragedy becomes doubly important. The Chief Magistrate was making her observations while granting bail to former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundera.

There are many inquiries underway probing the Easter incidents. President Maithripala Sirisena appointed a committee headed by a Supreme Court judge to probe the tragedy. They have handed over their report to the President but that document is yet to be made public.

The President this week also appointed what is called a ‘National Security Advisory Board’ headed by veteran politician Dr. Sarath Amunugama.

How this authority would function, what oversight it would have over national security and whether it would have overarching powers over the National Security Council remains to be seen.

Parliament has also appointed a Select Committee to inquire into the incident. This committee is conducting hearings which were initially broadcast live but after the first few sessions these broadcasts were ceased. There have been many startling revelations made before the committee regarding, for example, how meetings of the National Security Council were not held for several months.

Amid all this, two ‘scapegoats’ have been identified: former Defence Secretary Fernando and IGP Jayasundera. After President Sirisena publicly called for their resignations, Fernando resigned but Jayasundera stayed put. He was sent on compulsory leave, an ‘acting’ IGP appointed and Jayasundera is now canvassing his cause before the courts.

Fernando’s resignation came as no surprise after he, in a moment when he was caught off guard, told the media that the authorities ‘knew there would be an attack but didn’t know it would of this scale’. That was certainly not a responsible utterance in the aftermath of a tragedy in the prevention of which he, theoretically at least, had some oversight.

However, Fernando’s subsequent appearance before the Parliamentary Select Committee laid bare the circumstances under which he functioned. He called himself the ‘asarana’ or helpless Defence Secretary who had to wait for hours to get an audience with the President in comparison to one of his predecessors, Gotabaya Rajapaksa who he said had functioned like an unofficial Defence Minister.

IGP Jayasundera has shown more courage. He is not going down without a fight. President Sirisena has discovered that, just as much as he couldn’t sack his Prime Minister, he is unable to sack his Police Chief as well. Certainly, the Police may have had its share of lapses in not preventing the Easter tragedy but, considering that the Police did warn relevant authorities, should the buck stop with the IGP?

There is already much information in the public domain. Minutes after the bomb blast, a circular showing that the authorities were indeed aware that an attack was possible if not imminent, went viral on social media.At first it was denounced as fake but later events confirmed the authenticity of the document. It also became apparent that at least some politicians knew of the potential for an attack.

Therefore, when it was announced that both Fernando and Jayasundera would be prosecuted for alleged criminal negligence and murder, it came as a shock to many. That had all the hallmarks of a witch hunt and a cover up. With elections due this year, politicians were working overtime to try and shift the blame to officialdom and wash their hands off.

That is why the observations of Colombo’s Chief Magistrate are extremely noteworthy. In granting bail to Fernando and Jayasundera, the Magistrate noted that there wasn’t sufficient evidence against the suspects to constitute a murder charge under the Penal Code. The Chief Magistrate also observed that the charge of criminal negligence against the suspects was also questionable as there was no cogent evidence to prove such negligence on their part.

What the Chief Magistrate has effectively said is that any further legal proceedings against Fernando and Jayasundera have the same chances of success as Sri Lanka now winning the World Cup- though, of course not in those same words!

That brings us back to the original question: what then was the objective of prosecuting Fernando and Jayasundera? Was it to seek justice to the more than two and hundred people who paid with their lives on April 21? Or, was it for politicians to cover up their own failures so they could save face and go before voters yet again seeking re-election? The comments from the Chief Magistrate, we believe, tell us quite clearly what the answer is.

Thankfully, the judiciary has stood firm in spite of machinations by politicians who want to remain in power by hook or by crook. Last year, the judiciary took a stance when there was an attempt by the Executive to override the legislature and thwarted that effort. Had it not been for the intervention for the Supreme Court which determined that the dissolution of Parliament was unconstitutional, the death knell would have sounded for democracy in this country.

A week ago, the Supreme Court also intervened to stay the implementation of the death penalty. The decision to reintroduce the implementation of capital punishment is being touted as a war against drug trafficking but it is becoming increasingly apparent that it is also an ego trip designed to generate some public approval for flagging political fortunes.

It is to the credit of Sri Lanka’s justice system that the judiciary has been able to stand tall, be resilient and recover from its own dark days when a Chief Justice was wrongfully impeached on frivolous grounds and sent home unceremoniously. Such resilience must continue in the months and years to come, if only to keep at bay our politicians lusting for power at whatever cost.